For the inaugural month of WBN’s online book club, we’re reading Mat Johnson’s Pym. If you’re a book club member, you already know that. If you’re not yet a book club member and would like to be, it’s not too late to jump on the bandwagon. Simply use the comments section below to express interest, and either dive into Pym now or join us for next month’s pick (TBD).
Here’s a quick reminder of January’s reading schedule:
Jan. 1-7: Pym Volume I
Jan. 8-14: Pym Volume II
Jan. 15-21: Pym Volume III
Jan. 22-28: Pym Volume IV
A discussion of each volume penned by yours truly will appear right here on WBN’s blog within days of that volume’s completion. Please be sure to subscribe to WBN’s blog via email (in the sidebar to the right) or RSS so that you’re alerted to posts when they publish.
As riveting as these logistics are, what do you say we get down to business? Volume I, here we come.
Academia as Slavery
Academia plays a central role here—in initial setting, yes, but also in concept and character. The institution is presented as a corrupt, languishing system which favors politics over passion, affect over effect. As Chris explains to Mosaic Johnson when he expresses interest in the school’s Diversity Committee:
“The Diversity Committee has one primary purpose: so that the school can say it has a diversity committee. They need that for when students get upset about race issues or general ethnic stuff. It allows the faculty and administration to point to it and go, ‘ Everything’s going to be okay, we have formed a committee.’ People find that very relaxing. It’s sort of like, if you had a fire, and instead of putting it out, you formed a fire committee.” (18)
In this way, is Johnson (the author, not the character) likening academia to slavery?
In both institutions, a group of people are made utterly ineffective. Their voices are silenced. Their roles, preordained. Needless to say, the stakes are different. What’s professional misery when compared to existential misery? Still, given Chris’s interest in slave narratives; the book’s exploration of racial dynamics largely through Edgar Allan Poe’s The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket; and Chris’s observation of the professor who begged for his job back and got it, “It is more valuable to a master to have a morally broken slave than to have a confident one” (12), the parallel is difficult to ignore.
Literature as Fetish
“…we got to my house and saw all my books sitting there, on the front porch. Not in boxes, just stacked there. Hundreds of them. My books, my treasure. Sitting in the rain, bloated with a week’s worth of water and dirt and mold. Pages bursting open like they were screaming … Tens of thousands of dollars, years of collecting. Destroyed. Irreplaceable. Gifts, inscriptions, ruined. I picked one up, threw it down, started screaming. Jumping.” (15-16, emphasis mine)
This is one of my favorite passages in the book thus far. Chris’s reaction to the decimation of his books is on par with grief for a loved one lost. He, in essence, falls to his knees and bellows “Why?” His description of the carnage is anthropomorphic to the point of discomfort (see emphasis above). It’s a massacre. The university—and academia (ahem, ahem)—has murdered his books and, in so doing, murdered a part of him.
So here’s the question: Which part of Chris has died, and are we meant to mourn that loss or rejoice in his newfound freedom?
After all, the destruction of his books makes him hungry for a new acquisition, The True and Interesting Narrative of Dirk Peters, which sends him on an adventure he wouldn’t have otherwise had. Up to this moment, he’s worshipped books as the vehicle of his intellectual introversion—“My office was a narrow A-framed cathedral with a matching window. A shrine to the books that lined the walls and my own solitude” (9)—and has now lost his faith, at least as it was in its previous form. His new faith is literary, for sure, but freer, more expansive, and perhaps healthier (i.e. un-fetishized). His pursuit of Dirk Peters and Poe’s Pym requires an exploration of the world, rather than a shrinking from it. We learn that “The Jaynes family was stricken with overactive intellectualism” (70), so has Chris been cured of his disease? Has he succeeded in shedding his academic chains?
A final thought to segue into Volume II: Chris deems Poe’s Pym “a book that at points makes no sense, gets wrong both history and science, and yet stumbles into an emotional truth greater than both” (22). Will Johnson’s Pym take the same form, or will he seek to revise Poe’s authorial missteps in service of a more technically successful piece of literature? I don’t know, but I can’t wait to find out.
Pym is so incredibly rich, I wish I could address everything. Of course, I can’t, but you can. In your comments, feel free to respond to the questions I’ve posed above, or raise new talking points and questions for us to toss around.
And don’t forget to tick the “Notify me of followup comments via e-mail” box below to stay engaged with the conversation. On to Volume II!
WriteByNight owner Justine Tal Goldberg is an award-winning writer and editor of both fiction and nonfiction. Her short stories have appeared in Anomalous Press, Whiskey Island, Fringe Magazine, and other publications. Her journalistic work has appeared in Publishing Perspectives, Austin Monthly and the Texas Observer, among others. She holds an M.F.A. in creative writing from Emerson College.